A Beginner’s Guide to Jazz – Part 1
Many people are afraid of jazz.
It is often seen as too heady, music for old people that have become one with the dust on their vinyl collection or art students with stupid hats and goatees. But jazz doesn’t have to be that way (this is sounding like an infomercial already), and I, as someone who not only likes making things about himself but also loves jazz, want to show this to you. Even those who want to start listening to jazz often feel like they can’t, which is a really frustrating feeling to deal with. This piece shall try to fix that.
The approach I am going to take is bombarding my good friend Claudius (Editor’s Note: it me!), known for having good taste in music and knowing a lot of it, but also for having less expertise in the field of jazz than in other genres, with various different styles of jazz (I selected ten of the more important subgenres and one track for each one) and exuding my limited and semi-true knowledge of jazz along the way. He shall respond with his reactions.
Hello! It’s me, the aforementioned Claudius. In the following sections, after Markus’s analyses of his chosen tracks, you’ll find my thoughts and reactions in italics. I am indeed no jazz expert, having listened to only a handful of actual jazz records and enjoying even fewer, which is why I certainly cannot bring the same level of knowledge and analytical prowess to this piece that Markus possesses. However, albums and artists that are influenced by jazz, such as the works of King Crimson, Kendrick Lamar, and Flying Lotus are among my favorites, so expanding my horizons under the guidance of my wise friend and sharing my insights should be a worthwhile endeavor. At least, that’s what I think right now. Back to Markus!
But first, let us return to what jazz is. Many people have some preconception which mostly consists of someone with shades playing the saxophone with embarrassing amounts of passion and virtuosity and while that is true of some jazz, it’s not the whole picture. Most people agree that the core element of jazz is neither who the players are or what instrument they choose, it’s improvisation. A lot of jazz pieces aren’t fully written out in the same manner as classical pieces would be but have varying amounts of blank spaces on them which entice the performers to do basically whatever they want. Usually, the improvisation is a solo improvisation while the rest of the group (if there is more than one player) holds back and supports the soloist (more than most parents do with their children). However, this is also dependent on who plays and what genre or style of jazz the piece belongs to. Other common features of jazz include typical features of African-American music such as call-and response-patterns and syncopation, but also the rhythmic feel known as swing. To put this phenomenon which musicologists still don’t know the full inner workings of simply, swing is not being on the intended rhythm, but slightly in front or behind it.
Another aspect of jazz that might spawn some questions is some tracks in my selection having a take number attached to them. The reason for this is that most jazz albums are spliced together. If you improvise large parts of a song, the song will not always go well, or, put differently, some takes are just better than others. This practice is also common in music in general (and in contrast to classic jazz, pop often puts multiple takes together to make on song), but jazz might be the only genre which highly encourages listening to alternate takes. Every take is a fork in the road and there’s more to see than what seemed like the smoothest path to a producer in the 60s.
Anyways, before this needlessly long introduction to this even longer article makes everyone jump ship (or after it already did), here’s the first song and the first genre.
Jazz began with ragtime, which was played in cabarets and similar establishments and mostly on the piano, with rhythmic playing that incorporate syncopation at its core. Some people do not count ragtime as jazz yet, but they cannot deny the influence ragtime has on the shape of jazz to come. And since this is my piece, I’m including it anyways. Ragtime was probably semi-improvised in live settings (as such providing a basis for the jazz improvisation to come). The problem with this is that ragtime came about around the turn of the 20th century and as such is conserved to us mostly as written pieces (which are not written in a way to include improvisation) or studio recordings (of which are not that many for a variety of reasons and also do not sound good at all). So, with a heavy heart (as I made improvisation out to be such a central point of jazz), I chose a (comparatively) modern interpretation of a rag written by the godfather of the genre, Scott Joplin, played by classical pianist Joshua Rifkin.
Joshua Rifkin – The Ragtime Dance (originally: Scott Joplin)
Upon listening to this piece, you might think about black and white movies, but Joplin’s work dates back even further. So far in fact that it was initially sold as sheet music. Joplin’s sheet music deal for his most popular rag, the Maple Leaf Rag, was that Joplin may receive 1% of all sales, minimum price being 25 cents. This may seem like Joplin was ripped off (and he was, but ripping off black musicians has stayed common practice in the music industry from its inception to today), but by 1909, he was making 600$ per year (about $16,731 in today’s prices) and could live from his music alone, which was close to revolutionary for the early 20th century. This piece comes from the batch of rags Joplin wrote as a follow-up to the legendary Maple Leaf Rag and was first published in 1902.
Joshua Rifkin published his versions of Joplin’s rags via Nonesuch Records in 1970. Due to a small ragtime revival at the time, the compilation of both volumes peaked at number three on the Billboard Classical charts and was nominated for two Grammys the following year.
In usual ragtime fashion, the piece starts with a brief intro before going into the main melodic phrase and continuing to use that phrase to build the rest of the piece around it. The classical inspiration is discernible, but brief passages also busy themselves with call-and response patterns (which are more indicative of African music). The whole piece is very playful and (as the name suggests) feels like an old timey dance piece.
Black and white movies? Sounds about right. It might be a bit unfair to this truly delightful piece of music, but it’s rather hard not to imagine a slightly sped-up slapstick routine as the visual component of The Ragtime Dance. The tune is really pleasant and entertaining, but I also cannot deny that to the layman’s ears (i.e. mine), this sounds almost exactly like every other piece of ragtime that I have heard before. To me, a lot of music sounds rather slight and simplistic, presumably due to the focus on the main melodic phrase that Markus identified? Nice and easy, but not my cup of tea.
- Vocal Jazz
To taunt the premise of improvisation being central even more, here comes a subgenre of jazz in which improvisation plays little to no role. But I need to talk about it regardless. Starting in similar live settings as ragtime itself, vocal jazz for the most part features a singer accompanied by a pianist (or playing the piano themselves). This doesn’t give room to big improvisational passages, but it leaves room to some of the greatest voices in all of music (such as Billie Holiday, Nat “King” Cole, Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone). Vocal jazz has survived through jazz history, becoming more and more of its own field from the hard bop era onwards. But all kinds of vocal jazz are still covered instrumentally by jazz musicians, as some of the most popular songs have become standards that many jazz singers and instrumentalists know and thus can always be used as a basis for jam-sessions.
Nina Simone – Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair
One of those voices is Nina Simone (born Eunice Kathleen Waymon, she changed her name because she did not want her relatives to know she sang in nightclubs), a grand lady of vocal jazz past the genre’s peak in the 1920-1940s. When Nina Simone released her first album in 1959, black vocal music wasn’t exactly as filled with jazz singers as it was in the 20s and 30s, instead rhythm and blues had become the more popular style to go to, Doo Wop vocal groups were popular, and Soul was just around the corner. So Simone incorporated these more modern styles in her music and became successful with it. Her music has been cited as an influence by a wide range of musicians, from David Bowie to Aretha Franklin to Noname and Lana Del Rey.
But Simone wasn’t only an influential musician: as a public figure in black music in the 60s, she also engaged politically and became a spokesperson of the Civil Rights movement and brought its contents into her music, singing about the Jim Crow laws (Old Jim Crow) and other severe forms of discrimination black people had to deal with at the time (Mississippi Goddamn). She was Malcolm X’s neighbor and an advocate for black nationalism as well as cooperating with Harlem renaissance poet Langston Hughes (Backlash Blues).
From this highly political passage, we go right into a love song because I feel like this is Simone’s song that most fits into vocal jazz. The piano is frightfully minimal, playing harp-like arpeggios or jazzy chords that ring out while Simone wearily sings of her true love. She has an impressive voice but doesn’t feel the need to be boisterous with it, but instead relies on long notes and the gravitas of the volume of her voice.
I have to admit that this is my first time listening to Nina Simone – and after hearing this song, I feel all the more ashamed for it. The way her voice hangs over the sustained chords and single notes, flowing from earthy tones to airy flights without any apparent effort, is as impressive as it is heartwrenching. Every note is drenched in so much emotion that it feels almost as if you’re spying on her in a most intimate moment of self-revelation. At times, the musical accompaniment, with the rumbly bass notes under Simone’s soaring voice, reminds me of Nils Frahm, which just makes me to hear a version of this song played on a harmonium. Get on it, Nils!
Where ragtime and vocal jazz (with a few exceptions like Nina Simone’s Sinnerman) remained fairly minimalistic in their instrumentation, the jazz that first took the (white) public by storm didn’t fiddle around with such humble minimalism. Swing came from the Dixieland brass bands of New Orleans and, expanding on that concept, invented the big band. Big Bands are centered around a bandleader, whose role was similar to that of a conductor and who often played piano facing the band. Some of the most famous bandleaders include Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Glenn Miller.
Now improvisation comes into play (finally). But a big band can’t just rely on everyone playing whatever they want (there are albums like that, but they aren’t exactly famous for their number of sales); mostly improv comes for one solo instrument after the other while the rest of the big band provides a background.
Count Basie – Corner Pocket
In what seems to become a theme of this piece, I selected a piece that is fairly late for its genre, appearing on Count Basie’s 1957 album April in Paris. To put this into perspective, bebop already was around for a long time in ’57, its successor hard bop was nearing its peak, and modal jazz was around the corner. This only goes to show how much these genres overlap in the time in which they existed.
The title track was one of Basie’s best-selling singles at this late time in swing. But the Count and his band had been around since the 20s at this time and had already had some hits. The album April in Paris was inspired by a big tour through Europe (including France obviously) and tries to express the nature of spring in Paris in its playfulness.
The intro to this song might sound familiar to you from the Joshua Rifkin track, as Basie plays a ragtime-inspired stride piano intro. Then the brass sets in together with the drums (which provide the signature swing feel by essentially missing the rhythm) and the bass (which spends the whole song playing walking bass up and down the current scale like it’s an exercise). The brass and reed instruments vary between brazen unisons and quirky little solos. In even more typical swing fashion, drum rolls interrupt the flow at certain times, together with a dynamic change in the brass (it gets loud is what that means). When the piano gets a little solo time again, another drum roll interrupts it and the brass starts playing again. There is a steady feel of unpredictability (to people that listen to swing for the first time mostly) and this keeps the song entertaining.
Maybe it’s because I watched The Irishman the day before writing this, but I cannot get the image of an old timey gangster walking through a nightclub out of my head as I listen to this track. Major Copacabana vibes up in here. The brass keeps evolving in entertaining ways, alternating between solos and full band sections with a pace that is kept steady by the reliable drum groove. This is fun! But also a tad forgettable, mainly because the constant evolution gives me few anchor points. I am a simple man, I need some structure.
But now let us get to what is the breakthrough that made “modern jazz” possible. Away from the kitsch and large ensembles of swing and towards a centralization of increasingly technical and inventive improvisation, bebop is a point of orientation (either in distinction from or progression of the ideas laid out by it) for most movements in jazz to come. Bebop also established group constellations important for jazz to come. Most bebop is based on a bassist and a drummer providing the foundation, usually alongside a piano. This constellation would be known as the piano trio, which some of the best and most renowned jazz records utilize. This rhythm group foundation also allows for more soloists to be added for anything up to octets (above eight players you move towards a big band again, and no-one likes saying nonet), but mostly inhabits the range of three to five players.
Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Dizzy Gillespie – I know that you know
This song features three soloists in addition to the classic rhythm section, technically making this a sextet, but since combos are usually named after the one star soloists and this album has three pretty famous soloists, the label went with just listing them and letting you assume that the rhythm section is there and not complaining about getting less credit. With both Sonnys on tenor saxophone, the staple of many jazz combos, and Gillespie on trumpet, number 2 on the list of popular jazz brass, this is pretty stacked.
All three of these musicians were already frequently collaborating with each other as well as other bebop or hard bop greats such as Thelonious Monk, Stan Getz and Max Roach. While still doing fine in the bebop/hard bop era, they all lost relevance when fusion came around (if not earlier). This track marks one of the later peaks of bebop and some of the musicians associated with it.
It becomes abundantly clear that this isn’t swing anymore. For one, this song is fast. The drums hit harder than what people where used to in the swing age. Trumpet and sax impress with fast runs and crescendos (that many people can’t stand with trumpets, I know) that are much more volatile than the swing unisons. There is a call and response part between sax and piano, proving that this stylistic device never really gets old. Amongst all this novelty, the bass player stays trustworthy and plays walking bass like his life depends on it.
Did someone hit the gas pedal? This song comes out of the gate flying, with nice interplay between the different brass instruments (especially entertaining when one voice ascends, and the others counter it by descending). Constant soloing and the overall loose feel make this the first track of Markus’s selection that even a neophyte like me could have instantly recognized as jazz, that spontaneous, noodly atmosphere becoming more and more palpable as the players try to outdo one another in increasingly soulful solos. I almost wish there were fewer of them simply because the underlying groove of the track is so infectious and headbob-inducing.
- Cool Jazz
Surprisingly, some musicians became tired of the constant fiery improvisation which bebop stood for and started aiming for a more subdued emotional color. This style of jazz continued through all of jazz history and may not even really be a genre (but then again, what is genre anyways). Cool jazz (due to its smooth and easy sound) unfortunately also spawned a multitude of easy listening jazz albums for people that like eating in semi-fancy restaurants. But since we don’t blame other music genres for what they inspired, I don’t see the need to dwell on this here too much.
Despite this negative tone, cool jazz has produced some favorites of mine and the general jazz listenership. From Miles Davis’ frightfully essential albums to the Peanuts soundtracks (which were inspired by this style a lot), to legends like Oscar Peterson and Bill Evans, cool jazz is an undeniable influence even in its hard-to-define nature.
Bill Evans Trio – All of You – Live – (Take 3)
For me, the embodiment of subtlety and elegance in cool jazz is Bill Evans, a pianist responsible for taking the harmonic language of jazz to a new level by being one of the early adopters of modal jazz, the main inspiration for, and co-composer of Miles Davis’s legendary Kind of Blue.
Bill Evans’s piano trio is another jazz staple. The widely regarded constellation of Bill Evans on piano, Scott LaFaro on bass and Paul Motian on drums played together from 1959 to 1961, culminating in the incredible Village Vanguard sessions which became famous for Waltz for Debby, one of the great jazz live albums which was compiled from these three nights at the Village Vanguard. The next month, LaFaro died in a car accident. This loss of his friend and musical companion left Bill Evans devastated, keeping him from recording for months. A dramatic event like this ripping apart the band only made these sessions more legendary in the creepy fascination that pop culture has with posthumous content.
This song is very typical of the Bill Evans Trio, with Scott LaFaro playing the scratchy sound of the double bass, filling the holes that Evans leaves in his playing. Just as talented as the two stars of this trio, Paul Motian plays the drums without falling into the clichéd patterns jazz drumming sometimes sees itself trapped in while keeping solid ground for the other players to stand on. Evans plays as floatily as possible, like a little ballet on the keys, effortlessly finding the next notes to play in a way that feels like it always should have been. The times when the band picks up tempo are lively and clean, even with the small flourishes everyone adds almost accidentally. There is a bass solo on this song and it doesn’t even suck (as opposed to most bass solos, which do), but LaFaro keeps it entertaining and rich in tone. The ambience of the live recording is supported by the clinking of glasses and plates from the audience which arises in the more silent parts of the piece.
Take it from me: don’t listen to this track late at night. The sound of glasses clinking at the start made me think there was someone in my apartment. Strangers invading your home is always bad, especially when they are jazz musicians! As Markus points out however, the atmosphere of a night club is a perfect fit here: Evans’s cool piano stabs and lines glide fluidly over the steady drums, and the “cool” part of cool jazz is audible throughout the entire track. I do think the bass solo brings the song to a grinding, unnecessary halt, but that is quickly forgotten when the piano joins back in, with palpable effortlessness in every note.
If you haven’t noticed already, this piece has already taken a toll on your patience and available time. So, as it was suggested to me with careful hints (Editor’s Note: very careful, very subtle), this piece will be split here and the second part shall appear later. Genre-wise, entries 6 to 10 will pick up the pace a little with the creative explosion of hard bop and the genres which followed. You are now excited for the second part, believe me.
– Markus and Claudius were listening to an unhealthy amount of jazz while writing this article.